bill robinson

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Mr. Robot S02E04 - Elliot’s Dream Dinner Party, featuring Ray + the Wellicks; Trenton + Leon; Lloyd + Bill Harper; Angela, Darlene, & Qwerty.

A post wherein film writer Kimberly Luperi explores how Bill Robinson danced brilliantly through life. 

During an interview Bill Robinson once remarked, “Why not dance through life?” Robinson certainly did, despite the adversity he faced as an African-American performer working in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th. Famous for his intricate yet precise steps and cheerful performances, Robinson is said to have brought tap “up on its toes” and is credited with injecting a new lightness into the style. From busking outside beer gardens and traveling with minstrel shows during his youth, Robinson eventually worked his way up to vaudeville, Broadway and finally Hollywood, where he enjoyed the pinnacle of his popularity.  

 In September 1935, Robinson signed a contract with 20th Century Fox that guaranteed him $6500 a week while filming and also permitted him to appear in theater and nightclub acts, an unusual contractual allowance. Unfortunately, despite the high esteem his talents earned him, the racial climate of 1930s Hollywood confined him to lowly, oftentimes undignified roles. Consider this irony: Robinson sported a ten carat diamond ring that he had to remove before filming, because the characters he was relegated to play could never afford a piece like that.

Robinson acted in a handful of films throughout the 30s, but his engaging dance sequences alongside one of the Depression’s most popular stars, Shirley Temple, are perhaps his most memorable. Aside from being a delight to watch, certain routines stand out for Robinson’s creativity and the coverage he received, both of which allowed him to modestly transcend some of the racial limitations of the day.

With a 50 year age difference between them, Robinson and Temple appeared in four pictures together and broke new ground as the first interracial dance team on-screen. The duo’s most famous performance was the staircase dance in THE LITTLE COLONEL (’35), a Southern-set story in which Robinson plays a butler who helps care for Temple. Robinson modified the routine’s complex steps to accommodate his young co-star, devising a plan to have Temple lightly kick each riser before moving on. In the end, Robinson adopted the same moves, so it looks like she learns from him. In another stroke of genius, Robinson also rigged each step to produce a different pitch as they go.

Robinson’s brilliant choreography of this piece displays an ingenuity that confirms his exceptional abilities; furthermore, the way in which he uses his charm and fancy footwork to accomplish a common task (in this case, usher Temple to sleep) stands in stark contrast to the methods of Temple’s strict grandfather (Lionel Barrymore). Historian John F. Kasson suggests these ideas signify an “improvisational flight of freedom” on Robinson’s part that help elevate him above his otherwise restricting butler role.

Robinson also garnered considerable praise for THE LITTLE COLONEL (’35). The Los Angeles Times highlighted him alongside Temple and Barrymore in an article titled “Noted Trio in New Film”; The Billboard deemed the staircase routine “worth the price of admission alone”; and Variety reported that Robinson “grabs standout attention” and “reads lines with the best of ‘em." 

Certainly, Robinson and Temple’s chemistry contributed to the success of their musical collaborations, and off-screen the stars enjoyed a strong friendship that lasted until Robinson’s death in 1949. Years later, Temple remarked: "Bill Robinson treated me as an equal, which was very important to me. He didn’t talk down to me, like to a little girl. And I liked people like that. And Bill Robinson was the best of all.” If only Robinson had been treated as an equal during his lifetime, who knows what else he could have accomplished.

“What success I achieved in the theater is due to the fact that I have always worked just as hard when there were ten people in the house as when there were thousands. Just as hard in Springfield, Illinois, as on Broadway.”

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson

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Sad news: Dance legend Jeni LeGon passed away on December 7th at the age of 96. Born in Chicago in 1916, Ms. LeGon began her career in the 1930s when she was just sixteen, dancing in a chorus line backed by Count Basie’s Orchestra. She is probably best remembered for dancing with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in the 1935 film “Hooray for Love”, which also featured Fats Waller. Here is a clip of their number, “Living In A Great Big Way,” where you can watch Ms. LeGon dancing, singing and acting with Mr. Robinson and Mr. Waller. 

 

Stormy Weather poster, 1943.

Dancing great Bill Williamson (Bill Robinson) sees his face on the cover of Theatre World magazine and reminisces: just back from World War I, he meets lovely singer Selina Rogers (Lena Horne) at a soldiers’ ball and promises to come back to her when he “gets to be somebody.” Years go by, and Bill and Selina’s rising careers intersect only briefly, since Selina is unwilling to “settle down."